Proven Need

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User research: what to do and when to do it

“Know your users.” Regardless of what startup bible you read, the most consistent thread is undoubtedly this. Getting as close as you can to both users and their problems, gives you the best shot at building the right thing, and user research is your vehicle on which to do so.

But it’s not quite that simple. You see, depending on your stage in the process and what you’re trying to achieve, there are an array of user research methods and tools at your disposal, and using the right ones at the right times radically improves your chances of success.

So we’ve compiled this practical guide to user research, helping you understand what to do and when, and what to use to give you the best outcomes. Each section is broken into four key components:

  • Objective: what is it that you're actually trying to achieve

  • How: The way we suggest you should approach your research with this in mind

  • Tools: Some frameworks and services best suited to getting this done

  • Outcomes: Where you should expect to be as a result of completing this research



  1. Research your big idea


You’ve got your big idea for a startup, but how do you make sure it’s an idea that will actually work? You want to understand who your customers are and whether this idea might be a meaningful enough problem for them that you can or should solve.


  • Surveys enable you to gather a large number of responses at speed and in turn can be easily analysed. Following this we recommend timeline interviews, as they will enable you to dig a bit deeper into the respondents current behaviours and where their biggest pain points might lie.

  • Be sure to speak to people beyond your friends and family - they will be biased and will tell you what they think you want to hear. Speaking to potential customers will give you richer insights and real anecdotes. Search for where these people hang out (online and offline) and find your way in.


  • Google Forms, Typeform and SurveyMonkey are fantastic services that support the simple collection and analysis of data.


  • You’ll start to see patterns and common themes that keep coming up across the interviewees. From this you can build personas and identify ‘archetypes’ within your customer base. For each of these you should be able to distinctly articulate their goals, motivations, pains and frustrations.


  1. Prototyping your idea


You’ve identified and understood the problem, but you need to validate if your product is going to actually solve it. You may actually have multiple product ideas aimed at tackling the same problem so are trying to identify the best place to start.


  • Create a simple prototype or demo of the core journey/functionality of the solution you have in mind and get feedback from 5 potential customers - maybe engage some friendly people that you spoke to at the interview stage and ask them to give the prototype a go. With each round of feedback, iterate, refine and retest your solution over and over until you have a prototype that you are confident fits the problem.


  • For prototypes, I would always suggest to start on paper. This is a really quick, cheap and easy way to get your ideas out of your head and visualised. Don’t be afraid to show these early sketches in order to get super quick feedback from people.

  • If you think a richer, more realistic UI would help with testing, design tools such as Sketch or Figma may come in handy.

  • If you want to focus your energy on testing the journey or UX itself, Marvel or InVision are two prototyping platforms that allow you to create clickable prototypes.

  • If I’m conducting tests remotely, I use video conferencing software such as Skype or Zoom and share my screen. I will always try to record these sessions (be sure to ask the permission of the tester) to ensure I have something to refer back to if I need clarity on what was said.


  • By the end of this set of testing, you should have a refined prototype of the core journey and functionality, with a high degree of confidence that it solves the problem and serves a purpose.



  1. Fleshing out your first product


Building your product or service itself can be a costly investment. You want to be sure that your product is usable - both easy to use and easy to learn for your prospective customers. You want to identify key usability issues before you build (e.g. can users find your most important call-to-action? Do users get stuck when they go through the check-out process?)


  • Create a richer, more comprehensive prototype of the complete solution (including all the edge cases) and then test in depth with 5 potential customers. Once again, iterate, refine and retest the solution based on any common themes you’ve heard from the feedback.


  • The tools for this stage are very much the same as the previous stage, but we’d recommend placing greater emphasis on using design tools in partnership with prototyping tools now to create a much richer, realistic experience.


  • By now you should have a prototype that closely resembles the product you hope to launch, which both satisfies the users problems and needs, as well as doing so with relative ease.



  1. Building your tech


As you begin building product, you want to get feedback from users to ensure you’re still on track, and to further stress test the usability and relevance of your features and functionality.


  • Provide access to early builds to potential users at relevant and timely milestones during the build, taking on their thoughts and adapting quickly to common themes in the feedback received.


  • If you’re building a website, providing access to a staging environment or a password protected version of the site is a simple way to test behind closed doors.

  • If you are building an application, TestFlight and AppCues are great options to distribute builds and receive feedback.


  • You should now be ready to soft launch your product, confident in the quality of the experience and robustness of the build (but fully prepared for some bugs and issues to show).



  1. Soft launch your first product


You want help identifying any show-stoppers, whether that’s features that you simply can’t launch without, or any major issues or bugs that need to be fixed.


  • Provide access to a small number of friendly pilot users via a private beta release. Ask these users to explore the product and assign tasks for them to complete, as well as their feedback on the experience of using the product over an extended period of time.


  • Set up regular check-ins with the pilot users via phone/email/in-person to see how they are getting on and what (if any) issues they have encountered.

  • Send you pilot users a survey at the end of the pilot program to easily quantify their feedback and identify common painful/delightful moments during their experience of using your product/service

  • If you have Intercom installed, it can be a great way to talk directly to potential and current customers that you haven’t already built a relationship with


  • The end of this period should be marked by having a bug-free product, that is measurably creating value for users or customers, and is ready to be scaled to many more users.



  1. Full release of your first product


With your product in-market and slowly building a user base, your focus now switches to optimisation for conversion (if relevant), usability and ongoing feature release.


  • Now is the time to analyse your user data to spot trends in user behaviour. Get stuck into your analytics tool of choice and start to build an understanding of how people are actually using your product. It’s the perfect time to get a better understanding of your conversion funnel and to pin-point where most people drop-off.

  • Alongside data analysis, reach out directly to your users. Speak to those who didn’t convert and find out why they dropped-off, but also get to know your paying customers to understand what they like and what they’d like to see. Making both sets of users feel heard is a valuable way of building advocacy for you and your product.


  • There are an array of exceptional data analytics tools out there, and many companies and products use a combination. The most popular and valuable ones include Full Story, Google Analytics, Mixpanel and Amplitude.

  • Plug-ins like Intercom can allow you to reach out directly to users - but email can work just as well here if this proves too much of a cost at your stage.


  • Having conducted the above, you should be in a place to reassess your product roadmap and update your priorities. Doing this on an ongoing basis, with every new feature release and update, is essential for staying on top of your game!

Fiona MacDougall

UX Lead

Fiona’s love of consumer psychology, behavioural economics, and future technologies led her to the world of user experience design. She helps early stage start-ups to uncover customer insights, explore radical solutions and test ideas.

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